Artful yet agonizingly unhurried at times, the documentary “The New Rijksmuseum” takes a jewelers loupe to the subject of the Netherlands’ national art museum, which re-opened in 2013 after a controversial, decade-long makeover. Yet it seems paradoxical, in a film that pores over such aesthetic minutiae as paint color, that filmmaker Oeke Hoogendijk ends up offering viewers only a cursory understanding of why the work took twice as long as planned and cost tens of millions of dollars more than was originally budgeted.
Reflecting perhaps the idiosyncratic nature of Amsterdam’s municipal spirit, her film devotes an inordinate amount of time to protests by the city’s cyclists, who rose up in revolt when their beloved bike path through the heart of the Rijksmuseum — via an underpass that has been limited to cyclists and pedestrians since 1931 — was threatened by a proposed redesign of the 1885 landmark’s entrance.
“I spend more time on cyclists than on Rembrandt,” quips Wim Pijbes, the second of two museum directors featured in the film. At its midway point, the movie gets a jolt of drama from the 2007 resignation of Pijbes’s predecessor, Ronald de Leeuw, in a departure that seems motivated, at least in part, by exasperation. An earlier, four-hour version of the movie was broken into two films, with the first installment ending with de Leeuw’s departure. This release, at just over two hours, is fleet by comparison.
One of the most interesting things about “The New Rijksmuseum” is that you won’t learn any of those dates I mentioned — 1931, 1885, 2007 — simply by watching it. The director’s fly-on-the-wall moviemaking technique allows us to sit in on meetings with designers, accountants, architects, curators, city officials and angry bicyclists, but it gives short shrift to the sort of details and context that journalists — and some documentary fans — crave.
Instead, Hoogendijk shows us, for example, some guy in a hard hat walking around the half- demolished museum with a gun (possibly to scare away pigeons that have entered the building, but I’m not sure). At other points, the camera lingers over two massive Japanese figurative sculptures of uncertain provenance, adding a sound effect of faint, Darth Vader-like breathing to suggest that they are alive, or at least awesome.
Unexpectedly, it works.
“The New Rijksmuseum” derives much of its sense of drama from similarly eccentric sources, and is emphatically not for everyone. But in Washington, a town where a lot of people are passionate enough about art (and the politics of the institutions that show it) to work themselves into a lather about the recent dismemberment of the Corcoran, this slow but oddly mesmerizing movie may have found its ideal audience.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing offensive. In Dutch and some English with subtitles. 131 minutes.